QPAC, The Playhouse
December 30 – February 19
“Six” is a worldwide musical phenomenon unmatched in the juggernaut speed with which it has acquired its cult following (especially given the theatre shutdowns of recent years). Arising from humble origins (it was originally conceived as a production for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 by Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss), it now has over 500 million soundtrack streams worldwide, 3 billion Tik Tok views on #SIXtheMusical and two Tony Awards including Best Original Score…. so it comes with some big audience expectations, and they are absolutely met.
The highly anticipated high-octane one act (75 minutes) pop musical is more concert than traditional musical as Henry VIII’s divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived (to use the mnemonic)
wives ex-wives take to the stage. These are not, however, the Tudor names, fames and faces we might already know. Instead, this is history overthrown as we are introduced to the stories of the women of his story, divorced, beheaded, died live! The ensuing (and ingenious) framing premise is a contest outlined in its defiant ‘Ex-Wives” opening number; the queen who has had the worst experience (as voted by the audience) shall take the crown as the pop sensation to lead the band.
The show’s seriously catchy soundtrack starts strongly and never lets up. Indeed, its contemporary pop music of layered synth sounds is different to what audiences might usually hear in a musical. Yet, while its punchy tempo and dance oriented sensibility are frenetic, there is light and shade in its multi-styled score (which draws inspiration from a range of modern female artists).
As modest third wife Jane Seymour, (the only one he truly loved) Loren Hunter delivers a heartbreaking Adele-inspired power ballad, ‘Heart of Stone’. Her beautiful voice not only soars in its heights but captures the emotional vulnerability at its core concern over the conditional nature of their love. Meanwhile, group number ‘Haus of Holbein’, that satirises women’s beauty standards in lead into the next-up entrance of Anna of Cleves’ (Kiana Daniele), is a pumping neon-lit rave-like highlight.
The presence of the live ‘Ladies in Waiting’ four-piece band of all female musicians adds another layer to the musical’s ultimate themes of female empowerment. Claire Healy and Heidi Maguire on keys, Kathryn Stammers on drums, Debbie Yap on guitar and Jessica Dunn / Ann Metry on bass, who remain on stage for the duration in add to the pop concert scenario, not only provide the base for a multi-genre soundtrack, but are given their own moments to shine, such as when drum beats are given in the Catherine of Aragon’s (Phoenix Jackson Mendoza) bold ‘No Way’.
Although each talented Tudor Queen turned Pop Princess is given her own number in which to reveal her truth, the performers are all on stage for the entire show. While all six are obviously extremely talented, Kiana Daniele is a clear audience favourite as Anna of Cleves, evoking her edgy badass feminist Queenspiration of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna in ‘Get Down’ revelling in Henry’s rejection of her for not living up the expectation of the portrait of her painted by Hans Holbein, which results in her annulled marriage and consequential lavish independent woman lifestyle. Kala Gare is likewise popular as ‘that Boleyn girl’, Anne, not just in her catchy ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’, but sorry not-sorry mockery of Aragon and sassy banter with likewise beheaded Howard (Chelsea Dawson). And her play-up of much of the show’s innuendo generates some of the biggest laughs.
While they harmonise together well, each queen also presents a unique colour-coded look, personality and sound. Phoenix Jackson Mendoza kicks things off with a riffing tell of Catherine of Aragon’s story of devotion through a Shakira and Beyonce-inspired number about her marriage annulment and threat of being shipped off to a convent. Her angry refusal to contemplate being replaced means that she is confident that after 24 years of loyal marriage, she has done it the toughest.
Chelsea Dawson, meanwhile, brings a youthful vibrancy to the role of pretty-in-pink Katherine Howard, singing of her alleged affair in ‘All You Wanna Do’, but also having us consider her abuse due to the structures around her. And Vidya Makan gives us a quietly feminist Katherine Parr who, like Angelica in “Hamilton” leaves us with a very musical theatre-ish sounding anthem ‘I Don’t Need Your Love’, chronicle of losing true love, being widowed and lacking any choice in response to a king’s command, before questioning the competition and having her worth defined by him when she herself has done so much.
Characterisation comes not just by each individual queen’s number, but is embedded in every interaction with each other (and us) through knowing looks and alike. And because it is a concert musical rather than a standard book musical, there is no fourth wall, meaning that the queens sometimes interact with the audience. The show is full of one-liners and witty irreverent lines and wordplay in its string together of genius lyrics and its handful of country and city specific mentions aren’t particularly jarring. Its score, too, features clever inset of nursery rhyme type nods in its musical motifs and uniquely styled songs.
While it may all effortlessly come together, everything about “Six” is intricately crafted. Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography is always snappy in its precise accent actions and in formation movements, meaning that ever performance is vital, even if it is in back-up singer mode. Tim Deiling’s lighting is dynamic in conveying each queen’s themes with colour palette nods without causing rainbows of distraction, culminating in brilliant golden illumination of the final right royal ‘Megasix’ remix mashup of each queen’s solo in assert of their own individuality in take back of their stories. Emma Bailey’s striking set design also works with Gabriella Slade’s already-iconic historically-inspired costumes to authentically create the spectacle of a pumping pop concert.
Layered in its social satire, this fast-paced modern retelling of the lives of queens for too many years lost in his-story is a fun, cheeky show with some racy content as the Queens tease each other about traumas and abuse. Like soon-to-be-seen “Hamilton”, “Six” talks directly about history (knowing Tudor history is not a prerequisite) and also includes some girl power themes as integral to its storytelling. These are equally positioned rather than marginalised female characters celebrating their own individuality
In the case of “Six”, the ravers really are right. Although succinct, this is a vibrant and dynamic musical with a side of herstory thrown in, making for empowering uplifting and rock solid entertainment that should not be missed. And QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre is an appropriately intimate enough venue to allow its audience to become fully absorbed in the triumph of its infectiously boisterous, celebratory atmosphere.
Photos c/o – James Morgan